Saturday, 7 July 2012

Item 54: Use native methods judiciously

The Java Native Interface (JNI) allows Java applications to call native methods, which are special methods written in native programming languages such as C or C++. Native methods can perform arbitrary computation in native languages before returning to the Java programming language.

Historically, native methods have had three main uses. They provided access to platform-specific facilities such as registries and file locks. They provided access to libraries of legacy code, which could in turn provide access to legacy data. Finally, native methods were used to write performance-critical parts of applications in native languages for improved performance.

It is rarely advisable to use native methods for improved performance. In early releases (prior to 1.3), it was often necessary, but JVM implementations have gotten much faster. For most tasks, it is now possible to obtain comparable performance without resorting to native methods. For example, when java.math was added to the platform in release 1.1, BigInteger was implemented atop a fast multiprecision arithmetic library written in C. At the time, this was necessary for adequate performance. In release 1.3, BigInteger was rewritten entirely in Java
and carefully tuned. Even then, the new version was faster than the original, and VMs have become much faster in the intervening years.

The use of native methods has serious disadvantages. Because native languages are not safe (Item 39), applications using native methods are no longer immune to memory corruption errors. Because native languages are platform dependent, applications using native methods are far less portable. Applications using native code are far more difficult to debug. There is a fixed cost associated with going into and out of native code, so native methods can decrease performance
if they do only a small amount of work. Finally, native methods require “glue code” that is difficult to read and tedious to write.

In summary, think twice before using native methods. Rarely, if ever, use them for improved performance. If you must use native methods to access low-level resources or legacy libraries, use as little native code as possible and test it thoroughly. A single bug in the native code can corrupt your entire application.

Reference: Effective Java 2nd Edition by Joshua Bloch